In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love ★★★★★

Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love is one of my favourite films. What I love about it is absolutely everything. But to be a little more specific, what I love the most is how its poetic film language makes me feel. The film is a seduction and a heartbreaker. Its show don’t tell aesthetic invites my emotional connection in a way that words rarely do, speaking directly to my experiences and my deeply buried feelings of regret and longing. My past romantic life has mostly been a slow motion sequence of glances and dreams drifting through time, observing opportunities as they pass me by, accumulating memories of what might have been. And so, In The Mood For Love speaks directly to my emotions, to the tightly bound politeness of my upbringing, and to my lack of romantic courage. Yet it doesn’t make me feel sorry for myself. It doesn’t dredge up the bad stuff. Instead, it makes me feel again the possibilities of love and the febrile nature of intimacy that makes life worth living. It works like music does, reprising and consoling my feelings. 

The film is about two neighbours, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung), or Mrs Chan, as she is known under her married name. They are husband and wife to other people, but they are thrust together by the unhappy circumstance of their spouses sharing an affair. At first they provide each other comfort, but gradually they fall in love. But rather than the mood for love of the title, the film’s mood is more accurately one of restraint. They don’t give full voice to their thoughts, but rather they speak around them, echoing and play-acting the conversations and illicit seductions of their spouses, only to disown them for the sadness and impropriety of the betrayals they represent. The effect is a slow act of reaching out for what you desire only to withhold it and withdraw. 

We only ever see their spouses from the back, or briefly overhear their dispassionate voices, but it is enough to know that their respective marriages are done for. Chow Mo-Wan and Su Li-Zhen are surrounded by people acting out on their impulsive desires. Mrs Chan’s boss has a mistress and Mr Chow’s co-worker gambles and frequents prostitutes. But the two would be lovers are different. They are marked by a romantic fatalism that is all inner turmoil and outer restraint. 

The film starts with a hustle and bustle as they respectively arrive at the apartment building where they will live side by side. Their co-existence is viewed through cramped corridors and narrow doorways accentuating the physical closeness of their lives in the tenement. The chaotic opening establishes their physical proximity, but then the music drops and the action slows to become a study of gesture and glance. 

In The Mood For Love’s framing situates an urban landscape of small spaces that enclose and then seperate the characters. Rooms are split by doorways or by objects dominating the foreground. Images are refracted through light and glass, and the shallow focus picks out details while obscuring others. It all amounts to a sense that something is out of sight, or reach - cut off and constrained. The camera fetishises objects, imprinting withheld emotions upon them, like the number on a door, or the ticking of a clock. And it picks out bodies and body language, scanning the flesh of an arm, or the curve of a waist, and lingering over the tension in a hand, or the drop of one’s gaze. 

The first time I saw In The Mood For Love I didn’t recognise the characters from Wong’s earlier Days of Being Wild. That film was set two years before its loose sequel. It featured Su Li-Zhen prior to her current marriage and still suffering the abuse and heartbreak of a relationship with the damaged Yuddy (Leslie Cheung). Knowing this backstory helps explain why she may have rushed to marry in a desperate attempt to bury her pain; but now just two years later, she faces the double sorrow of her unrequited passion and her over-reaction. She’s trapped by her past - both memories combining now to prevent her from making the same mistakes again. 

Chow Mo-Wan’s role in Days of Being Wild was limited to a fleeting cameo in a postscript scene. Watching him then, dressing and grooming in preparation for a night on the town, gave us a tantalising glimpse into the precise self-control that we get to see clearly now in his fully developed character. Both he and Su Li-Zhen dress immaculately, enhancing their attractiveness, but also binding them. Their clothes are society’s decorations - a standard of decorum that prevents them from consummating their passion. 

There are other subtle reminders of the past depicted in Days of Being Wild, including the frequent shots of clock faces, with their accusation that time is marching forward and opportunities are being missed. The former film’s cold, lonely greens are replaced here with warm, romantic reds. The colours and textures of both films are astonishing. As was the case in Days of Being Wild, the characters’ tears are mixed with the frequent rain, and their smoke spreads to fill the empty spaces hanging between them. 

Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are perfectly cast: handsome and elegant; their characters haunted by their lack of agency. They apparently had only a simple script to work with - an outline of a short story, partly improvised through the film’s production - but through their subtlety of gesture they speak a thousand words. But in a sense their main task is to embellish the mood, and the real star is the way the camera and music seduce and flood our senses. 

The music intensifies the sensuality of the various elements. Yumeji’s Theme by Shigeru Umebayashi is a languid waltz, instantly romantic but suffused with a melancholic haze. It is loaded with the unspoken, innermost feelings of the lovers, locating us in their thoughts and daydreams. And it accompanies them in their gradual seduction, from their early glances, to their enjoyment of each other’s company, through to their full flush of attraction; but always slowing things down and holding them back. The sultry Nat King Cole songs are nostalgic for the time, and their exoticism manages to echo the film’s vision of an unrecognisable Hong Kong from another era. Nat King Cole’s golden-voiced romantic crooning accompanies their time together at the cafe, and later the hotel, teasing them with possibilities (“perhaps, perhaps, perhaps”). Towards the end of the film Michael Galasso’s Angkor Wat theme updates Umebayashi’s, adding a mournful intensity to Chow Mo-Wan’s entombment of his secrets and regrets of a love that never was and yet will always be. 

It’s this heady mix of yearning for what cannot be and the resulting wistful regrets that are the autograph of this film. The result is one of the most sensuous of all love stories. And yet the remarkable thing is that for all its ravishing detail and simmering desires, it is ultimately a story about restraint - of love withheld and resisted. An impossible love - of people drawn together only to be pulled apart by society, geography and most of all, by time. 

Favourite Films | Best Music (Scores and Soundtracks) | Wong Kar-wai Ranked

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